Julysabel Cerda is only 35 years old and had worked at a coffee roasting plant in Texas since 2007. Part of her everyday routine was climbing the ladder to the mezzanine at the top of a grinder where coffee beans were processed. She would stir the beans, inhaling aromas that are suspected of destroying her lungs.
Only a year after working there, she began to notice being increasingly winded after climbing the same ladder every day. She was fit, healthy and active otherwise. She suspected something must be wrong. A cough persisted, her throat constantly felt dry, and she couldn’t figure out why she felt so tired all the time.
After a lung biopsy, Cerda has diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a serious lung disease in which the smallest airways in the lungs form scar tissue that diminishes breathing. She is now on the waiting list for a lung transplant.
Bronchiolitis obliterans is more commonly known as “popcorn lung,” named for the eight workers at a microwave popcorn plant who were diagnosed with the same severe lung disease as Cerda, after being exposed to high levels of diacetyl for years on the job.
Over the course of Cerda’s employment at the coffee roasting plant, she was exposed to diacetyl on a daily basis. It is used as a flavoring agent in products such as microwave popcorn, flavored coffee, cake mixes, prepackaged frosting, and many other types of foods and is used to mimic the creamy flavor of butter.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed the chemical safe to be eaten in trace amounts, but scientists with National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), the research arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have declared diacetyl to be potentially harmful if inhaled.